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The Return To the Senegalese Stomping Ground

30 Apr

Chez Alain

“I couldn’t find a mention of this place anywhere online,” Eugene said as he waited under scaffolding on the corner of Adam Clayton Boulevard (7th Avenue) and 122nd St, his shadowy visage blending into the dim surroundings. “How did you find it?”

“Yeah, how do you like that.?” I said. “It hasn’t even been Yelped yet.”

I was proud of myself, but really, the discovery of the Senegalese restaurant, Chez Alain was easy for me. Just a few blocks north of what was referred to in an earlier post here as the “Senegalese Stomping Ground,” was also not far from my place of residence. When we first started our urban food adventures almost 13 years ago we routinely discovered gems that had yet to be unearthed. Now finding a restaurant that hadn’t previously been on Yelp, Chowhound, Serious Eats, or written up by the New York Times or Village Voice was no longer easy. In fact, it was almost impossible

“Maybe we should revisit some of our old gems,” Gerry volunteered as we gathered at a table for five in the clean, practically virginal restaurant.”Do you think we can amend the group’s rules to allow that?”

It wasn’t a bad idea and just the suggestion alone brought back a reverie of names such as “Uncle Sals’ Ribs and Bibs,”(Southern (Bronx) BBQ),  Tandoori Hut, (Dining With Sikhs) Cafe Gelchick (Kvass and Vodka), and the long defunct Peruvian gem on Northern Boulevard, La Pollada de Laura, home of the legendary “leche de tigre” (Cooked in Corona).

I had stopped by Chez Alain the day before our meal to talk to the hostess who introduced herself as Marieselle, making sure she would reserve our table for five and that all the dinner specials would be available by the time we arrived in the evening. Many of the African restaurants do a very brisk lunch and afternoon business catering to taxi drivers on their breaks before the evening rush. As a result, often all the good offerings are gone by dinner.

I noticed that the thiebou djenn, the Senegalese national dish of rice and fish, was not included in the dinner specials. “You can order the thiebou djenne in advance,”  Marieselle said, “and we will save a plate for you.”

I did just that so when we arrived at Chez Alain, Marieselle reassured me that the she had the thiebou djenn for me.

“There’s something not right about that,” Eugene said when he learned that I had pre-ordered a dish. “I think that might be against the rules.”

“Don’t worry, Eugene,” I said. “I’ll make sure you get a taste.”

He muttered something under his breath and ordered the grilled fish with the “spicy” rice. Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with plantains and when Marieselle came to Zio he just laughed. “I’m gonna have the same thing,” he said to her. “The grilled fish.”

Thankfully, Gerry veered from the fish fest to order the lamb version of thiebou djenn.

For some reason, Eugene’s fish arrived first. A monstrous tilapia, its skin seared into slices and grilled to a crusty brown. “Is this one all mine?” Eugene asked incredulously.

The monster tilapia, Senegalese style

The monster tilapia, Senegalese style

When he saw Zio and Mike from Yonkers get the same size fish delivered to their seats he had his answer.

Finally the much anticipated thiebou djenn arrived; the short grain rice cooked in a peppery tomato sauce with chunks of fish layered on top along with eggplant and root vegetables. After a few bites there was no doubt in my mind that it was worth of reserving a day ahead.

Thiebou Djenn

Thiebou Djenn

As I happily devoured the thiebou, I watched the three of our group dissect the grilled fish. Eugene neatly excised the tender, moist meat from the bones and Mike from Yonkers, as is his custom, took his time in making sure not a piece of the favored cheeks and/or any other speck of fish remained. Zio, on the other hand, made no attempt at decorum. His fingers, coated in the oils of the fish, were his utensils of the night. His plate was a quagmire of skin, meat and bones all of which, whether he wanted to or not, he shoved into his mouth. But from the determined look on his face, despite the disaster that was his plate, no one would deny him the pleasure he was having by criticizing his methods.

“This one just might make our Chow City Hall of Fame,” Eugene declared to all as he finally put his fork down, his fish now just a bony carcass.

And with my plate cleaned, I couldn’t disagree at all.

After having settled our bill, well under our $20 per person allotment,  and on our way out, Marieselle told me that if I wanted the thiebou to call and they would always save an order for me. Being only a few blocks away from the northern border of the Senegalese Stomping Ground, that was more than a comforting thought.

Chez Alain

2046 Adam Clayton Blvd


A Taste of Ghana on the Grand Concourse

25 Jun


The palm oil, okra, and tomato sauce spiced with cayenne peppers coated the fingers of my right hand. The fish I had used those fingers on was now just a skeleton. The thin napkins I had quickly stained were done. I got up and went to the sink that was located in the back of Papaye, the restaurant on the Grand Concourse where our group had just dined. I cleaned the grease from my hands and wiped them dry with a paper towel. As I returned to our table, a man who I had noticed also eating fish with his right hand while deftly holding a phone to his ear, called across the table to me

“Have you ever been to Ghana,” he asked.

I pointed at myself. “Me?”

“Yes, have you been to Ghana?” he asked again

“No, never,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“You eat the fish just like we do in Ghana,” he said with a smile. “So I think you might have traveled to my country.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just an expert at eating with my hands…or any other utensil,” I added.

The utensil in question for this meal was actually a plastic-wrapped ball of banku. Following my eating instincts, I used it to scoop up the gravy from the bowl—with my right hand of course.

Banku. My utensil

Banku. My utensil

We were in the Bronx, steered there by Gerry after a seemingly inexcusable faux pas. Suffering from a momentary lock of his ancient brain, Gerry’s first choice was a Pakistani restaurant, also in the Bronx that he himself chose for our group several years ago called  Rawal Ravail and was written up in these pages (see Biryani Joy). When realizing his mistake, he righted himself quickly with his choice of Papaye. And after our delicious dinner there, his blunder was immediately forgiven.

Our waiter at the family-run Papaye struggled with his English and Eugene struggled with him. “You have to help me here,” Eugene pleaded to the waiter. “I don’t know what to order, but I want that fish.”

He pointed to the photo on the menu of the grilled tilapia smothered in peppers and onions.

“Fish?” the waiter wanted to make sure.

“Yeah, with the peppers and onions.”

“With fufu, plantain, rice?” the waiter asked.

Eugene was lost. If it isn’t something served in a chafing tray on a cruise boat buffet, it’s all foreign to him.

With our aid, Eugene settled on the accompaniment of jollof rice.

Jollof rice and fish

Jollof rice and fish

We started with skewers of meat; indistinguishably grilled beef that was high on the chewing quotient. Thankfully, the skewed meat was the only low point to our meal.

The meat options were limited, pretty much to either goat or fish with the variables in what accompaniment you ordered. I, as I said, chose the banku, a mound of mashed fermented cornmeal that was wrapped in plastic while the crimson-tinged jollof rice that came with Eugene’s bloated tilapia was enough for the five of us to share. Gerry and Zio both had fufu; mashed yucca formed into what looked like a softball floating in their rich gravies. Also within the spicy gravy were pieces of tender goat that Zio picked apart with the plastic utensils provided.

Fufu and goat meat stew

Fufu and goat meat stew

Mike from Yonkers, in an attempt for something firmer than the plastic spoon he was given, requested repeatedly for a metal  fork to be able to eat the goat and rice balls that came in his huge bowl. “I just can’t eat this with this thing,” he said, waving the greasy spoon at the befuddled waiter. Eventually a metal fork and spoon came his way and as he usually does, he then methodically worked his way through the bowl with uninterrupted diligence.

Goat and rice balls

Goat and rice balls

After cleaning my hands and accepting the compliments on my African eating habits from the man from Ghana, I sat back down and, along with the others, waited, as we always do, for Mike from Yonkers to surrender to whatever might be left on his plate before we could pay and make our way back out to the Grand Concourse.

Fish and goat stew with banku

Fish and goat stew with banku

Each of our one dish meals contained  enough food (and starch) to sustain a man (or woman) for many hours before their next meal. But in Zio and my case, that wait was just a few minutes as we spied a Carvel ice cream shop down the block also on the Grand Concourse.

“I think we need some ice cream to calm our over stimulated palates,” Zio suggested.

And I didn’t disagree.

2300 Grand Concourse





A Taste of Soul Sticking Food on Seventh Avenue

7 May


We had just begun to stare at the wide array of exotic dishes offered behind the plexi-glass enclosed steam table when he was on us. He wore dark shades and a dark sport jacket. He shoved menus into our hands while proclaiming Accra, the African restaurant Gerry and I had wandered into, as something unlike any other African restaurant. Here, he said, you could get Ghanaian,  Senegalese, Nigerian, all kinds of African food.

“We even have soul food if you want it,” he said.

The assortment was staggering and we had no idea which dishes matched the very vast menu above the steam table. Gerry pointed to a dark brown stew where the only identifiable food were hard boiled eggs.

Brown stew

Brown stew

“You want a taste? Give him a taste,” the man in the dark shades said to one of the African women behind the counter. She looked at him quizzically, but no taste was forthcoming.

I eyed a rich, forest green vegetable stew. “That’s spinach with meat. Give him a taste,” he said again to the confused woman.

“We have beef, lamb, chicken, fish. No pork here,” he added. I had noticed the “No Pork on my Fork,” sign on the window in front. It was a remnant from the previous establishment: Mookie’s which I included in a post I wrote on this site called A Little Love for the Pig (Please).

Still no love for the pig.

Still no love for the pig.

“We have peanut soup, jollof rice, fufu, dibi with acheke, wakey with beef…” He said, pointing to the trays as we moved down the assembly line of food. “Give them a taste,” he said again, this time to whomever might listen.

But no taste was offered.

There were trays of fish. Some just the heads. Others smaller, fried whole.

“Tilapia,” he said, pointing to the fish heads. “And whiting,” indicating the smaller, fried fish.

Spinach with meat...and tilapia heads.

Spinach with meat…and tilapia heads.

“Black eyed pea fritters,” he said, indicating a mound of fried fritters. “Give them a taste.”

Finally, Gerry and I were handed pieces of the black eyed pea fritters off of small forks. Besides a slight spice tang, they were bland and could use a sauce or condiment as an accompaniment.

Black Eyed Pea Fritters

Black Eyed Pea Fritters

Next to the fritters was a tray that one of the women behind the counter was filling with a pieces of bronzed meat that had just come out of the deep fryer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Turkey butt,” she said.

“What?” I looked closer. They were small, rounded, bony orbs, fried to a reddish brown. I wasn’t sure if I heard correctly.

“Turkey butt,” she repeated.

I looked for help from the man in the dark shades, but he had disappeared. We were now on our own at Accra.

Turkey butt

Turkey butt

Gerry decided on the dark stew of meats he first noticed along with rice, plantains and the spinach. I tried the sticky okra, jollof rice (a brownish yellow rice with bits of meat), lamb chops and also the spinach.

“Let me cut the chops,” the woman assembling my plate said. She cut them with kitchen shears into smaller pieces.

Lamb chops, spinach, okra, and jollof rice.

Lamb chops, spinach, okra, and jollof rice.

I noticed Gerry had a plastic bottle of homemade ginger beer on his tray.

“I’ll take a ginger beer too,” I said, but when I was handed the plastic bottle what was inside had a reddish tinge to it; a different hue than Gerry’s ginger-colored ginger beer.

“That’s ginger beer?” I asked.

The woman nodded but then a man came out from the kitchen. “Don’t give him that one,” the man said. “That’s the very spicy ginger beer.”

He was assuming that I couldn’t take the heat. That I wasn’t up to the challenge; that my American Caucasian constitution made me physically incapable. I didn’t resent the implication, but neither was I willing to accept it.

“Oh no, I’ll have this one,” I insisted stubbornly.

I took the food and the ginger beer back to a table where Gerry had already planted himself. Before even starting on the mound of food on my plate, I had to sample the ginger beer. I took a small sip. It was as strong as I’ve ever had; almost like drinking a wasabi smoothie. And after starting in on the very spicy okra and spinach dishes, the ginger beer was offering no respite. I had to cave and order a glass of water to put out the fire.

Once the water arrived, I was able to taste the food. Everything was flavorful and lovingly prepared. Even the multiple photos of Congressman Charles Rangel wining and dining with African dignitaries could not diminish my appetite.

Congressman Rangel trying the jollof rice.

Congressman Rangel sampling jollof rice.

Gerry looked around the dining room. “We are the only ones using forks,” he said.

I looked up from my plate to see the few occupied tables with men who, using their hands, were scooping their food into their mouth with pieces of pale fufu, familiar from our trip to Jamaica, Queens and the memorable Maima’s (The Bistro that Serves Fufu and Four Fingers), as their only eating utensil.

Once our plates were clean, I wondered what there might be for dessert. I noticed Accra carried donuts—the same donuts found at a thousand delis and bodegas across the city.

“Not for me,” Gerry said after I suggested it.

Paris Blues then,” I said, indicating the bar two blocks away where the Les Goodson band would be performing soon.

“Now you’re talking,” Gerry said.

Paris Blues 045

As Gerry and I exited the restaurant, moving past the long steam table, the women behind it and the men working in and around the dining room wanted our feedback. We heaped as much praise as we could before we got out of the door and even then, a man wearing an “Accra” baseball cap poked his head out. “Did you enjoy your food?” he asked

We reiterated our praise and said we would be back soon.

“Alright then,” He said with a smile and went back into the restaurant.

Accra Restaurant
2065 Seventh Avenue


The Fusion Files: French Pizza in Harlem by way of Africa.

1 Mar

French Pizza

I’ve noticed a few pizzerias in Harlem that have a French accent.

oui (7)At first glance, crepes and pizza might seem like a natural mix.

oui (5)And at Oui Oui there was a French/English menu where one of the crepes  was named for the largest city in Mali. Was I on to something here?

oui (6)Why order a pedestrian “Italiano” pizza when a merguez was available?

oui (9)And so I did. Not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised that the piquant sausage made of lamb and beef gave the pizza a very welcome kick to it and was, in my estimation, a worthy substitute to traditional Italian sweet sausage.

crepeThe “Harlem” crepe, however, was another story and one not worth dwelling on.

oui (3)Still, everything was made in Harlem. And what could be better than that?


Injera Ingestion

14 Nov

“In all our time as a group, how have we missed eating at an Ethiopian place?” I asked Gerry, who was with me at an Ethiopian place in Harlem called Abyssinia.

“Too expensive usually,” Gerry responded, referring to our group’s tight $20 per person budget.

I looked at Abyssinia’s menu. Nothing was over $16. “Not here,” I said.

“No, definitely not here,” Gerry concurred.

It was a day after a nor’easter left a few inches of wet snow on the already soggy city streets and a little over a week after the big storm. Our group was scheduled to meet the previous day, but we were currently on hurricane hiatus. Though the group could not gather, Gerry decided to leave his still heatless Westchester home where he claimed there were no lines for gas, to drive into the city for what he hoped would be much needed spicy food.

His hopes were quickly realized. Not only was the small restaurant deliciously fragrant, it had heat—lots of it. And adding to the warmth from the clanking radiators was the heat from the meat “sambusas” brought to us by our pleasantly quiet waiter.

Similar to the Indian “samosa,” the sambusa was fiery and though berbere sauce, Ethiopian hot sauce,  accompanied it, the added spice was not needed.

Sambusas with Ethiopian hot sauce.

To get a good sampling of the meats, we ordered the “meat combo,” featuring three meat options along with a separate order of yebeg awaze tibs, cubes of lamb sautéed with onions and jalapeno in an awaze (berbere) sauce.

The meats came assembled on a colorful platter with each individual meat dish in a small mound along with a few vegetable sides and layered on top of the spongy Ethiopian bread known as injera.

The Abyssinia meat combo platter.

Along with the platter, we were given an additional plate of injera. There were no forks, spoons or knives on the table. With bread like this, who needed utensils? We scooped up the meat and veggies with the accompanying injera and shoved it into our mouths, doing our best not to let anything fall our already food-stained clothes.

These meats were not on the day’s menu at Abyssinia.

The doro wat, a chicken leg in a rich berbere sauce was tender, falling off the bone, the sauce identical to what coated the beef in the ye siga wat. The lamb, though not as tender as the beef or chicken, was aromatically addictive. Soon our “utensils” were gone and our waiter returned with another fresh plate of the injera for us.

We went through that plate as well and still much of the meat remained. We were not ones to waste anything, but we just could not continue. It was as if the injera had expanded in our gullets.

We ate all the “utensils.”

The waiter came to our table. He smiled slyly and examined what was left and then shook his head. “This is the best part,” he said, indicating the injera that the meats were layered and now saturated with their juices.

What was left did look delicious, but regrettably, any attempt to taste it might have resulted in a not very pleasant finale to what had been a much needed most comforting, post-hurricane meal.

As he took away the platter, I stared at it longingly. We both knew we erred, but if you do not learn from your mistakes, you are destined to repeat them…or something like that.  It would not happen again.

Abyssinia Restaurant
268 W. 135th

A Senegalese Stomping Ground on 116th Street

17 Apr

Africa Kine
256 W. 116th Street

Mike from Yonkers notified our group via email that he wanted to choose a place from his “old stomping ground.” Who knew that Mike from Yonkers’ old stomping ground was the area around 116th Street and Eighth Avenue known as Little Senegal? What we do know is that Mike from Yonkers has some sort of obsession or kinship with African food. In the past, he has directed us to the late, Treichville Treichville Tasting Menu, African American Marayway in the Bronx The Un American African Place, and Salimata Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal, just around the corner from his most recent pick, Africa Kine. And like 116th being his old stomping ground, this obsession has never been explained.

I never claimed the same area as my old stomping ground, but having lived just a couple of blocks from it, I could have been justified for doing so. I even spent a few months volunteering at the community food bank next door to Africa Kine, just after the economic meltdown of 2008.

The soup kitchen next door.

I worked at the soup kitchen washing pots and pans, bagging garbage, prepping food, and even shoveling ice and snow so the food trucks could gain entry to the kitchen. I stopped soon after the chef of the kitchen, who caught on that I was a writer, had me read the beginnings of his autobiographical novel and when, local Mormon missionaries began to flood in to help out making the kitchen more populated than one you would find at a four-star restaurant. But those are stories for another time and place.

Since my work at the food bank, a raucous, busy beer garden, called the Harlem Tavern has opened across the street, along with a meat market that specializes in local, organic beef and where the butchers wear pork pie hats while they work, and a cookie place where the cheapest, albeit, very good and very large cookie, is four dollars.

Those new establishments, among others made parking tough for the group, but Zio and I had no troubles getting to Africa Kine, which was enshrouded in dark netting along with scaffolding in front making it hard to distinguish. On the way in, we passed a legless beggar in a wheelchair and as we entered and started upstairs to the dining area, we both noticed a woman, face down, arms out on a prayer mat.

“Don’t take her picture,” Zio whispered to me. “It would be disrespectful. We don’t want an incident.”

Inflation hits Little Senegal.

Africa Kine is possibly the most notable Senegalese restaurant in Little Senegal. The dining area is spacious and modern, with high ceilings, comfortable booths, big tables and a number of flat screen televisions, and described in the restaurant’s elaborate website Africa Kine as “luxurious.” Either way, it was most definitely a far cry from what we experienced at either Salimata, Treichville or African American Marayway.

The others joined us soon after at a big table in the back of the “luxurious” dining room. While we sipped spicy homemade ginger beer, we perused what, by now was a familiar menu thanks to the African culinary education bestowed upon us courtesy of Mike from Yonkers. There was guinea fowl, chicken, lamb, goat, fish, grilled or fried, and steak. The entrees all came with a choice of one of an assortment of starches; couscous, rice, plantains, yam and a small chopped iceberg salad. Each dish came with onions, sliced, lightly grilled with a mustard-based sauce on them, and scattered over the meat and fish. Most of the entrees also included half a hard boiled egg.

Grilled fish with onions and half a hard boiled egg.

I’m no expert on guinea fowl, but if I recall, the guinea fowl at Salimata was better, or maybe more distinguishable, than what we experienced at Africa Kine. The fish and lamb were also all solid, but there were no raves from our now very picky Senegalese aficionados. So, though the surroundings were comfortable, and yes, bordering on luxurious, the food was not as memorable as many of the more humble African places we have visited.

Grilled guinea fowl with onions and a half hard boiled egg (and plantains).

What there was at Africa Kine, however, was plenty of food; the portions more than generous.

“Really now, how can they say people in Africa are starving? Zio griped. “Just look at all this food?”

“Yeah, we just ate a village,” Gerry quipped.

And of that village, there were no leftovers.

The Bistro That Serves Fufu and Four Fingers

22 Feb

Maima’s Liberian Bistro & Bar
106-47 Guy R. Brewer Blvd,
Jamaica, Queens

After learning that we would be traveling to Jamaica, Queens for our next eating adventure, Zio commented that it was our group’s first outing to that section of Queens. He was excited about it, but he had no idea at the time that before our dinner was over, he would, quite literally, be smothered in affection by the ample and genial, to the extreme, hostess/waitress of Maima’s Liberian Bistro & Bar.

I’m not sure why Zio was looking forward so much to visiting Jamaica. From my initial perspective cruising down Liberty Avenue, there wasn’t much more to it than countless auto glass repair service centers.

And then after passing the York College campus and turning onto Guy R. Brewer Blvd, things got even dicier. The streets had a dangerous aura to them. It wasn’t dark yet, but the area reminded me somewhat of the burnt out street of Baltimore depicted in the television series “The Wire.” The only bright spot on the street was my destination: Maima’s.

Omar coming…for some fufu.

Later, Zio confessed to “late night drives” through the neighborhood; his artistic eye appreciative of the dank, post-apocalyptic look of the place. Of course Zio, observed the neighborhood from the safe confines of his used BMW and, wisely, never got out of the car during those nocturnal excursions.

I was the first to arrive and the first to meet, Janis, the aforementioned hostess. Stevie Wonder was playing on the stereo. There was a small wood paneled bar and African-themed paintings on the wall. We’ve been to many other African restaurants over the years, but this was our first taste of Liberian food. And compared to the other African restaurants, (the late Treichville, Salimata, B&B’s African American Restaurant, and African American Maraway) Maima’s was by far the most “elegant,” thus the inclusion of the word “bistro” in its official name.

The Bistro menu of the day

With the help of one of the few African patrons in the small restaurant, Janis put together three of the tables to make room for our group of six. As soon as I sat down at the extended table, a cold Corona in front of me, Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, and Zio arrived.

After Eugene and Mike from Yonkers also ordered Corona’s, Zio  in as deep and manly a voice as he could muster, said to Janis, “And I’ll take a man-sized Coke.”

His deviation from what the rest of us were ordering and the authoritative way he said it must have stirred something deep inside Janis’s generous soul. Almost instantly there was “chemistry” between the two.

After maneuvering through traffic on the Belt Parkway, Gerry entered followed soon after by Rick. The menus were of the take out variety, but as take out menus go, Maima’s was colorful and printed on thick, glossy paper. Each day there were daily dishes offered. We were there on a Tuesday and had the option of either Spinach or Palm Butter, but by the time we were ready to order, Palm Butter had been erased from the chalkboard.

Besides the daily offerings, fufu & soup was available along with fresh fish, “fried, toasted, or steamed.” In fact, fufu, the ball of doughy, beaten (literally) down version of cassava, was available with everything, as we soon found out. The soup was pepper soup, that, according to Janis, was a mélange of meats; chicken and beef, and seafood along with a big pale ball of fufu.

We started with appetizers of roast meat and chicken on skewers, and pepper shrimp. The shrimp was smothered in a thick, burnt red paste. “Be careful,“ Janis warned, “the shrimp is spicy.”

Pepper shrimp

Gluttons for heat, we scoffed at her warnings and dug in. I tried peeling the shrimp but gave up, eating the thing whole. Before I got more than two bites in, however, I was overcome by an uncontrollable attack of the hiccups; a sign that I’ve surpassed my body’s spice index. Sucking down ice water, the hiccups subsided and maybe that I’d already numbed my lips and the lining of my throat; I was able to continue to eat the fiery shrimp.

Janis brought Gerry and Rick their “spinach” entrees. The spinach was served chopped in a bowl with bits of meats and seafood throughout. From what I sampled, those bits were more tiny pieces of meat attached to small bones. The spinach also came, of course, with a ball of fufu as did the pepper soup that Eugene and I were having.

Maima’s spinach

I was about to try the fufu when Janis rushed to my side and added a dollop of the same peppery paste that was on the shrimp to the otherwise bland fufu. I used my hand to break apart the dense ball of fufu and added a small amount of the pepper sauce for flavor.

Fufu with a dollop of pepper sauce.

And then I turned my attention to the soup where a four-fingered hand or foot, I couldn’t tell, was jutting from. So life-like was this appendage that if I dared look closer I might have spotted fingernails or maybe knuckle hair. But for that reason, I kept my distance from it.

The broth was indeed peppery, but mild compared to the hiccup-inducing shrimp. Inside the broth, along with the appendage, were pieces of tripe, gelatinous beef tendon, small pieces of chicken on the bone and even smaller blue crab bits.

Waiter, there’s a hand in my soup.

With fork and knife, Mike from Yonkers delicately began the dissection of his “toasted” fish which, translated, meant that it was grilled while Zio’s approach to his fried fish was more primitive; pulling apart flesh from bone with his palm oil stained fingers. “What kind of fish is it?” I asked him.

“The fresh kind,” he muttered without looking up, his mouth partially stuffed with food.

Fish and fufu

It was about then when Zio noticed Janis bringing a bagged order to a customer waiting outside. Along with presenting him with his order, she gave the customer an overly friendly hug. When she returned, Zio, wiped the grease from his lips.  “I’m a little jealous now,” he said to her.

With that, she grinned, went behind him, wrapped her defensive lineman-like arms around him and began to smother him with affection. Thankfully, Zio had completely drunk the man-sized Coke to keep his now overworked heart stimulated otherwise we might have had to rush him to nearby Jamaica Hospital.

Rick was moaning as well, but not because of an outpouring of affection. The fufu had done him in. “I think it might be expanding in my stomach,” he said of the half ball of fufu he had already ingested.

Still we had to try the rice bread; a sweetened piece of cake that tasted like banana bread and was made, I presume from rice flour and bananas.

Rice bread

Our experience at Maima’s was certainly memorable even if the food did not quite make it to the top of our self-monitored charts. My only regret was that we never got to try the palm butter special.

“Next time you come, you can call ahead and they’ll hold it for you,” Janis said.

“Who do I call?”

“Just call Mama,” was her glowing response.

Eating Guinea Fowl in a Guinean Place in Little Senegal

9 Nov

2132 8th Avenue
New York, NY

The bustle around Salimata.

I must have passed Salimata, the restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers, hundreds of times and really never noticed it there, not very far from where I reside. Maybe it was because it was located in the shadow of the Masjid Aqsa Mosque, kind of a community center for the areas West African Muslims who populate the area known as Little Senegal and always bustling with activity. Or maybe I was unaware of its presence because it just blended in with the many small, family-run African restaurants in the area.

The Mosque next door.

Like Gerry who chooses based on how long it takes us to get to a place, or Eugene who looks for the untried, no matter if edible or not (see Arzu), Mike from Yonkers has an African thing going; his last two picks; Treichville and African American Marayway  both featured the cuisine of the countries of West Africa. Salimata’s represented Guinea, though all of us would be hard pressed to distinguish the subtle differences between the food of Guinea with that, for example, of Ghana or even, Guinea-Bissau. But getting to Salimata couldn’t be any easier for me so I certainly wasn’t complaining about his choice.

Greeting us outside the restaurant was a burly man dressed in what looked like the sweat suit version of the traditional African buba. He had a big sack open and filled with a haphazard assortment of shoes he was selling. “Take a look at my shoes,” he asked, holding the bag open. “What size are you?”

We told him we were going in to eat at Salimata now. Maybe later, someone unwisely said thinking he might be gone by the time we finished. He nodded approvingly at our dining choice that, we soon found out, also served as his base of operations.

The only table big enough to handle our  group of six was close to the front door and  the constant commotion of take out customers and taxi and livery cab drivers moving in and out, had us keeping our jackets on to stay warm. All of us were  pleased that now, after two absences, Rick had rejoined us, and taking a quick glance at the menu and without any hesitation he decided on the guinea fowl, a variation on either pigeon or chicken, depending on how you approached it.

Guinea fowl: The before picture.

The menu was ample, but as is the case with many of the small African restaurants, it’s hit or miss on what will be available when you happen to be at the restaurant. In our case, some of the West African classics like thu djeun (stewed fish), chicken yassa, and lafidi (rice with roasted goat meat) were done for the day.

Our waitress who was scuttling back and forth between taking table orders and returning to the take out counter in the back of the slim restaurant, instead just recited the few items that remained such as grilled chicken, grilled fish, and steak. That didn’t satisfy either Gerry or Zio who persisted, pressing her with some of the other menu items forcing her to squint at the menu.

Zio was adamant about the “bouillon avec fonio” also known as cow feet soup while Gerry was intrigued by the “suppa kandja” a mix of lamb and fish in an okra sauce. Keeping it simple for our harried waitress, Eugene and I opted for the grilled fish while Mike from Yonkers ordered the grilled chicken.

There were two television monitors at either end of the restaurant where the only decoration was a poster endorsing “Boubacar Bah for President.” The televisions were tuned to CNN and after our enormous platters arrived at our table, President Obama was shown making a speech. The volume on the televisions were turned up and all the Africans either eating or waiting for their take out orders, including the shoe salesman who was leaning against a wall gnawing on a chicken leg, watched raptly.

Guinea Fowl: The after picture

We, on the other hand, did not show as much respect, loudly commenting on how Rick’s guinea fowl looked pretty much identical to Mike from Yonkers’ grilled chicken and both just as dry, while the fish Eugene and I ordered, which we later learned was tilapia looked like they had spent their early years swimming in what probably was a tank in a Bronx farm, consuming a steroid-rich diet, they were both that big. Despite their enormous size, the fish, unlike the chicken, was moist, smothered in a light tomato sauce and served with a mound of cous cous and mustard-flavored grilled onions. Gerry’s dark green mashed okra concoction had a gamey, overly salted taste that one most definitely would need to acquire to appreciate and the hard gelatinous cow feet anchored in Zio’s soup had him throwing up his hands. “I just can’t eat it,” he said shaking his head in defeat.

Impenetrable cow foot soup.

The ridiculously inexpensive check for all the food consumed softened the few misses and by the time our platters were cleared and we made our way out of the restaurant, the shoe salesman had returned to his position.  He looked at us hopefully and gestured to his sack of shoes with one hand while holding the half-eaten chicken leg in the other. “So, are you ready to buy some shoes now?”

The Un American African Place

27 Sep

African American Marayway
218 E. 170th St

As Adam Clayton Powell Blvd merged onto the Macombs Dam Bridge, I could see the glow from the blue lights of the joint Yankee Stadiums on the other side of the Harlem River. While I was stuck in the stop and go traffic on the bridge, I noticed that the lettering on the new stadium was slightly different—more 21st Century, than the old one and wondered how much longer I would actually see the two stadiums side by side.* Once over the river and into the Bronx, I turned onto 161st Street, past Rupert Way, up toward Lou Gehrig Plaza and then north on the Grand Concourse. I was heading to a restaurant chosen by Mike from Yonkers called African American Marayway; the name being a mystery since the cuisine was supposedly Senegalese with no nods to African-American staples.

I doubt the Iron Horse ever had the pleasure of dining on Senegalese cuisine.

Just off the Concourse on 170th Street, down a hill where cars were parked at angles, I saw the small, corner restaurant. I parked on a very dark, barren street that in its desolation reminded me of the Bronx is Burning days of the 1970’s and was adjacent to a sloping park which, in the dark, looked more like a pit bull dog run than a park.

The Champs-Elysees of the Bronx: The Grand Concourse.

Everyone, with the exception again of Rick who was dutifully doing his best to play the game and survive in the crumbling publishing industry environment, were in attendance and seated at one of the restaurant’s three tables. Though it was not an abnormally cold night, the restaurant had no heat and winter jackets were required for dining.

There were no menus and our hostess who was also one of the two female cooks situated safely behind a plexiglass counter, mentioned that she had tilapia. We told her to bring that. . .and anything else she had. Though this was as bare bones an establishment as we had been to, there was a television and it was inexplicably tuned to the NASA network where an operative in Houston droned on about satellite readings. Thankfully a gargantuan whole fish quickly appeared on our table smothered in onions and adorned with lettuce followed by another fish, this one chopped into pieces, accompanied by a variety of roasted root vegetables, and resting on a bed of brown couscous. The two platters sat there—we weren’t sure what to do and then our hostess returned with another platter; this one overflowing with white rice along with a plate of meat, (lamb we soon discovered) onions, and fried plantains.

Grilled tilapia

We were given a glass with utensils in it and expected to eat from the platters communal-style. When it comes to our group, though we are good at sharing; communal just doesn’t work and we requested additional plates. It took a little prodding, but we were soon given two more plates and a stack of aluminum take out containers.

Now that we were free to shovel the food onto our respective “plates” we did so with rapid fire gusto. The tilapia, on the bone, proved somewhat tricky, but, collectively our expert bone filleting fingers made clean work of the fish. Our hostess wasn’t quite finished; she returned with a bowl of what she called “gravy,’ chicken with onions and rich with palm oil that she suggested should accompany the rice and another bowl of “peanut butter;” a stew of goat meat, in a thick peanut and onion sauce.

With the sounds of the Houston NASA technician as background white noise, we worked fast, trying to finish before the food got as cold as we were. Though describing it now, the meal seems like a lot, but at the time, after finishing, it was if we were missing a course or two. And when our hostess told us that for all we ate, we owed a total of $30, almost as cheap as the  Old Poland Bakery, the record-setting Polish restaurant we visited in Greenpoint several years ago, the urge to spend and eat more increased.  Much of our discussion around the table was about ours and others current economic struggles and as we exited the restaurant, Gerry commented, fittingly, that with places around like African American Marayway, we would never starve.

Gerry’s sentiments, however, didn’t deter us from stopping while we were ahead. We got in our cars and snaked north through the Bronx streets to the Italian-American neighborhood of Arthur Avenue in search of more food. Our destination was to be the famous Egidio Pastry Shop, but it was closed and we settled on one of the neighborhood’s newer establishments, the brightly-lit, garish, Palombo Pastry on the corner of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue.

The scene of the “crime.”

Having had my daily intake of caffeine I was the only one to defer from an espresso or cappuccino. Instead, I settled on a baba rhum.  While waiting for our order, I was anxious to call Rick and tell him of our African American Maraway adventure. Our drinks and pastries arrived and maneuvering around me, the waitress placed the tray at the edge of our table. While in mid-sentence with Rick—trying to describe Maraway’s unique attractions__Eugene was given his cappuccino which, apparently, upset the balance of the tray and three hot espressos tumbled onto my lap, the cups shattering on the floor as my voice turned into a gurgled semi-muffled scream. The café went silent as all eyes were on me. I clicked the phone closed and looked down at the disaster that was now my pants. When I looked up again, Eugene had a sarcastic smile on his face and said. “You should know by now that it’s quite rude to talk on the phone in a restaurant?”

*We visited African American Marayway a few months before the new Yankee Stadium opened and a year before the demolition of the old.

Treichville Tasting Menu

9 Aug


The path to Treichville was a circuitous one. Originally Rick’s pick and scheduled a month earlier, Rick chose the much anticipated Rudar Social Club in Astoria, but the date coincided with the closing of his newly acquired money pit in Atlantic Highlands. At first Rick did not think this would be a conflict; that the closing would be over before our dinner and it was, but seriously challenging his loyalty to his brothers in gluttony, he decided instead to take his lawyer out for a drink. That, coupled with Zio being stricken with a stomach virus so potent that just the thought of Croatian cuisine made him retch, led to us cancelling at the last minute. It took a month to reschedule and again, the Rudar Social Club was Rick’s choice, but this time thoughtfully, giving us a week’s notice, cancelled.

A restaurant posing as a car service

This time, instead of rescheduling, we shifted the choice to Mike from Yonkers, who was next in line. The short notice sent him into a minor panic and he quickly decided on African place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The problem, Eugene immediately pointed out via email, was that the place had closed several months earlier. After a few days, a replacement was chosen, a soul food joint in the heart of the trendy East Village, but after deliberating with an anonymous member of our group, Mike from Yonkers determined that the soul joint didn’t fit our criteria. For some reason, and after several years with our group, Mike was still struggling to comprehend our guidelines, loose as they are. But with a little counseling, again from the same anonymous source, he finally came up with another Treichville.  The Treichville we were visiting was not the one in the heart of Cote d’Ivoire, but in East Harlem, just a few steps from legendary Patsy’s Pizzeria.

Temptation around the corner.

From the outside on a block on east 118th Street, Treichville looked more like a car service operation than a restaurant. The only hint was the subtle sign above the door with the restaurant’s name and the proclamation of African cuisine. The windows were barred and a neon sign behind them flashed “Open 24 Hours.” I arrived early and hungry and Patsy’s was a serious temptation, but I thought it best to display some willpower. Soon the others arrived and we piled into the tight, low-ceilinged quarters where we were the only diners. The specialty here was West African, specifically the Ivory Coast, and the menu printed in both English and French. Drinks were the usual, ginger beer or sorrel, both homemade and satisfying. But it was the soups on the menu that interested us the most, particularly the pepe (pepper) soup; a combination of crab, cow feet, lamb, and tripe. The host/waiter announced that the pepe was not quite ready yet, but after nudging him wavered and said he would bring out soups for all. While he was at it, we asked for a sampling of Treichville’s specialties—kind of the poor man’s version of a “chef’s tasting menu.” He gladly obliged.

The five of us were first served huge bowls of soup with Eugene, Mike from Yonkers, and Gerry getting the pepe while Zio and I were given chicken soup. Noticing immediately that Zio and I were slighted, our host brought out two more bowls of the pepe.  I took a few spoonfuls of the chicken soup, which was more like a stew, enough to gush appreciatively over it and then offered it to the others for tastings while I sampled the pepe, which was not quite what was described in the menu—there was no meat, just fish, crab, mussels, and shrimp—more like a bouillabaisse with the sub-tropical addition of a whole, scotch bonnet chili pepper which Eugene ate inducing a bout of spasmodic hiccupping. Following Eugene’s lead and not knowing the pepper was a spicy garnish and not for eating, Mike from Yonker’s ate his and soon a fine sheen of sweat had formed on his forehead.

Meanwhile, despite my warnings to Zio to just taste both of the soups and not try to finish them all, I noticed the bones of the chicken from his soup picked clean and lined up neatly against the side of his now empty bowl and that he was busy extracting a piece of meat from a slender crab claw that was in his fish soup. When I warned him again, he threw up his hands defiantly. “What do you want me to do? I can’t just leave it!” he said.

Once the soup was cleared, we were all given salads with homemade vinaigrette which helped take down the heat from the soups. Following the salad, two platters of whole fish appeared; one, according to our host was grilled, the other fried, though I could tell no difference. Both were doused in a room temperature onion/mustard sauce and served with a mashed-like condiment of cassava and plantain called foutou. The procession continued with a platter of lamb shank, beef, and grilled chicken, all covered with the same onion/mustard concoction. With the addition of platters each of couscous, cassava, and white rice, our combined tables were overflowing.

The fish, whether grilled or fried, was perfectly moist and tender while the lamb shank, more than enough even for our colossal appetites. The beef and chicken were both fine, but really just pure excess at this point and after a few bites of the fish, I heard Zio groan repeatedly. “I can’t,” he stammered, “No more.” And so, for the first time in our long history of dinners together, Zio was done.  He was not alone. We were all pretty much done—the Treichville “chef’s tasting menu” just too much for us. So finally, with Treichville, despite the roundabout way he got to it, Mike from Yonkers nailed the concept of our group and deserved the accolades we heaped upon him at dinner’s end.

*Hoping to return to Treichville a few months ago, I came across thie signs, in duplicate, plastered underneath Treichville’s security gate and on its door.

I would have settled for a “C” grade, but this…

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